If You Lay Down, The Baby Will Never Come Out - Page 2

Author // Cole Deelah

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If You Lay Down, The Baby Will Never Come Out
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The Labyrinth

Native American peoples, especially the Hopi, Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham and Yaqui, used labyrinths to symbolize birth, rebirth and transition from one world to the next—emergence. The labyrinths were usually depicted with a cross in the center, representing the four cardinal directions, seasons of change, and sources of spirit and power. Unlike a maze, there is only one way in and out, so there is no fear of losing oneself. Instead, the labyrinth is a means of rebirth and discovery: finding oneself.

The Hopi people used the labyrinth to teach the principle of Mother/Child (Tapu’at). This included the Mother Earth and her relationship with her mortal child; the mortal mother and her relationship/journey to bringing forth her mortal child; and the creation story. The outer walls are the womb, while the lines of the labyrinth represent the twists and turns of life’s journey and the umbilical cord, always connected either physically or spiritually with the mother. The center symbolizes the amniotic sac, the center of life, or the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom.

It is not certain that women walked labyrinths, but we do know that some drew them in the sands as a meditative rite during labor.


Native American women were robust, in excellent physical health, devoid of outside diseases and influences (by and large). They ate a diet rich in fresh produce and seasonal foods. This allowed for a quick and relatively uneventful recovery from childbirth. Although certain welcoming and new-parent rituals were observed, they were often quick to return to regular duties, usually after a short respite and lying-in period. Many women would take an after-birth tonic (of ergot or another remedy indigenous to their area) to expel the placenta and help reduce blood loss.

Many tribes’ customs required a lying-in time where women attended to the new mother and baby, banding together to take care of her house’s needs, while also pampering the mother with grooming, binding, special nourishing, washing, steaming and massaging. Some cultures would swaddle the mother in a warm bed over heated stones, while others would house the mother in special steam huts.

The Shawnee required 10 days of lying-in in which the father could not see either the mother or his baby. The Picuris Pueblo required a 30-day lying-in period, after which the baby was named. Many tribes required that the father and a helper stay with the mother for this entire time of lying-in.

An example of the extent of naming and postpartum rituals is the Hopi purification ritual. The Hopi people require a 20-day lying-in period, during which the mother must not have the sun shine on her. On the night of the 19th day, a great feast is prepared in the mother’s honor, and both she and the newborn are bathed carefully and ritualistically. The baby is rubbed with ash and anointed by the family, who suggest names to the father. The father, in turn, announces the sun’s arrival. The grandmother of the tribe chooses the child’s name and announces it as the baby’s face is shown the light of day for the first time. Then, everyone except the mother returns to the home to feast; the mother goes to the sweat house to complete her purification.

Many Native American tribes cherish the placenta and/or the umbilical cord as sacred or mystical. Navajo tribes require that a baby’s placenta be buried within the sacred four corners of the tribe’s land, essentially binding the infant to the land and the tribe’s ancestors. Likewise, the midewiwin traditionally performed the rites of cord-cutting and naming.

In many Plains tribes, the newborn was presented with a small beaded pouch that contained the remnants of their umbilical cord stump. The child would wear this throughout their lifetime, and many were buried with it in their old age. This talisman was thought to bring connection to the tribe and family unit, and serve as protection.

The Pueblo people would either bury the umbilical cord in the floor of the home (if it was a girl) or in the corn field (if it was a boy). On the fourth day after birth, the infant was presented to the sun. The shaman would name the child, and present him or her with a flint arrowhead or an ear of corn, depending on gender.

The Wichita people had their own postpartum customs. On the morning after a baby’s birth, the elder women of the tribe would take the newborn down to a stream and pray for protection, strength and health, bathing the babe. Other Native American tribes have done similar river-immersion rituals for the first year of life for the baby.

The father had his own responsibility for ensuring a baby’s health in Wichita culture. His first job as a new father was to make a cradling board. It was very ceremonial, with many specifics to adhere to while choosing the willow tree that would become his child’s carrying place. He would offer supplications and prayers while laboring over the hewn wood to ensure his child’s health.

Most tribes required that the father participate in the restrictions postpartum, or he was prescribed his own set of rituals to perform. The Tillamook people, for example, required the mother to have a 15-day lying-in time, during which the father forfeited sleep for 10 days. Likewise, many fathers swore to abstain from intercourse for a time or went on dietary restrictions with the mother of his child.


Some women of the plains would grind dried buffalo manure to use as an absorbent powder in their babies’ swaddling blankets. If a baby were to wet themselves, the damp powder was shaken out and new powder was added. Other tribes practiced elimination communication, and were able to move the infant into a position to relieve themselves without soiling the blankets or wrappings.

Women of all tribes carried their babies nearly exclusively for the first year. This allowed for ease of transportation, warmth, and immediate and extended nursing, while assuring that the newborn would have minimal chance of falling into natural harm (scrapes, nicks, falls, infection, puncture wounds, drownings or animal attacks). Babies slept with their mothers for the same reasons.

Carrying it Forward

I hope that you enjoyed learning a little about the beautiful rites of passage that our land’s native people have practiced since time immemorial. One hopes that we, amid our technology, our busy lifestyles, and our impersonal communication practices, could take a step back and consider a lesson from this group of people. Life is sacred, life should be honored, and life should be cherished through holistic care and ritual.

Pathways Issue 48 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #48.

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